by Michael Durao
January 11, 2011

Recent leaks concerning China’s new J-20 prototype fighter serve to highlight glaring deficiencies in American defense acquisitions.  The capabilities of the J-20 remain shrouded in typical Chinese secrecy, but Western analysis has already cast a skeptical eye on its stealthiness and capabilities.  Regardless, the J-20 and the far more capable Russian/Indian T-50 unveiled one year ago demonstrate that the West’s monopoly on 5th generation fighter technologies has ended, and that independent, cheap development of these technologies will drive their proliferation to potential adversaries in the third world.  Contrary to the claims of politicians and military leaders, the airborne battlespace is not irrelevant, and the second it’s lost the close air support that makes American forces so potent on the ground will give way to massive casualties and a neutering of power projection capabilities.

Fetishization of transnationalism coupled with a politically-mandated and unopposed obsession with “transformational warfighting” has focused future acquisitions purely towards counterinsurgency, focusing only on the present when Iraq and Afghanistan appeared to be signs of paradigmatic shifts in adversaries.  However, large scale intervention in Iraq has already ended, and if America continues to prop up Karzai’s corrupt government we will find ourselves among the ranks of Britain, Russia, and all others who have attempted to impose federalism on tribalistic Afghan society.  Either way, our two largest attempts at nationbuilding will end within the next decade.  Raising the question of “then what?” prompts only baseless assertions that all American military actions will be this sort of policing and nationbuilding well into the 21st Century.

Blind to the possibility of fighting foes with technology made in the last few decades, Robert Gates and his cheerleaders in the media champion such substandard-yet-costly programs as the F-35 Lightning II and Littoral Combat Ship while wantonly killing off systems that are more potent, more versatile, and counter-intuitively cheaper, most notably the F-22 Raptor.  Air Force and Navy hardware intended solely for counterinsurgency, counterpiracy, and miscellaneous international law enforcement actions would be all well and good if the fantasy of transnational cooperation between the superpowers - gleefully steamrolling the troublemakers that they mutually dislike worldwide - didn’t fall flat on its face at every turn.  Chinese stonewalling of actions against the Sudanese government and Russian protection of Iran are only the tip of the iceberg; the true danger posed is from proliferation of these rival superpowers’ conventional weapons systems.

The most obvious threats overlooked by Gates & Co. in the last few years have been proliferation of S-300 and S-400 surface-to-air missiles, and the previously mentioned Sukhoi T-50 fighter jet, both Russian in origin.  Generally speaking, either system can be countered by the F-22 Raptor, and the F-35 Lightning II is vulnerable to the SAM and fighter jet - the former due to poor low-observability in its airframe shape, and latter primarily as a matter of its pathetic internally-carried load of two air-to-air missiles - all while at nearly three times the cost of a Raptor.  Despite Gates’s insistence that all we must worry about are insurgents with IEDs, AK-47s, and RPGs, these technologies have already found their way into the hands of the very “rogue states” that keep transnationalist bureaucrats up at night, and many more will be transferred to the third world in the coming decade.

In some cases, this is the accidental result of past proliferation.  For example, after Russia declined to export modernized S-300 variants to Iran, the Islamic state simply purchased them from Belarus and has announced plans to indigenously build more.  The T-50, meanwhile, has been specifically designed as a cheap, affordable F-35 killer, and nations looking into acquiring the jet include the distinguished world superpowers of Vietnam, Venezuela, and Egypt.  That these top-tier fighter jets - once again, better than America’s F-35s - will soon be in the hands of impoverished Communists who already threatened our perceived air dominance once before, insane Bolivarian Socialists who are gradually exerting imperial dominance over South America, and a nation that’s been on the brink of an all-out Islamic insurgency for the past few decades should send a clear warning signal that complacency towards the Air Force is the greatest threat facing American security today.  Even the J-20 will likely be developed into a competent fighter by the time it’s deployed in 2018, leading to even more 5th generation fighters in the hands of third world despots.  With potential and probable adversaries and rogue states operating modern aircraft and air defense systems, American air dominance can no longer be taken for granted, and it is essential that civilian leadership in the DoD shifts its acquisition policies to reflect that change.

Michael Durao is an Beowulf Associate who's analytical expertise is focused on aerospace platforms.  His particular concentration lies in the analysis of the capabilities and proliferation of Eastern air defense and air-to-air systems, defense acquisition reform, and the evolving paradigms of 21st Century warfighting.

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